Thursday, July 16, 2015

Thoughts on the Practice of Description

As an archivist and local history librarian, one of the primary elements of my work is the description of collections and individual items. Sometimes, this description ends up in a finding aid such as this one on the Combe Fill South Landfill Records ( The purpose of that work is to make it easier for researchers to find and use the collection. It also provides a much deeper level of documentation of the collection that previously hadn't existed.

Beyond the finding aids, I also create a fair number of exhibits each year, both online and in cases within the Chester Library. Each of the items featured in the exhibits requires some description, but the more exhibits I create, the more time I spend describing the items. For my latest online exhibit, I kept a friend of mine in mind as a potential visitor. He uses a screen reader to experience web sites, as well as digital documents (think Word files), because he's blind.

Last week, I talked with another librarian about these types of motivations and decision-making efforts when it comes to description. I was reminded of attending the ARLIS annual meeting in Boston a few years ago. In one of the sessions, the speakers touched on the nature of description as applied to artworks. Her talk was in the context of describing paintings and other works to patrons with varied abilities, such as my friend Ken

Thinking about how to make a meaningful experience for anyone who might use a screen reader drove my process. Here is an example from the Memories of Chester, Herman Rademacher Series exhibit, "West Main Street and Morris Chamberlain" (

The postcard, copyrighted in 1915 by local printer George E. Conover, shows leafy trees lining the right side of the dirt road. On the left side of the image are businesses, a gas station, and a garage. There is an early Model T parked in front of the striped gas pump tower. A man stands in the doorway of the second building on the right (the Masonic Lodge). The Lodge is a two-and-a-half story building with a painted shield hung between two windows on the second floor. The garage is a single-story building with a flat façade.
It's been a few months since I released the exhibit, and without the pressure of a deadline, I can see areas where I could have been more descriptive. For example, I would describe the façade as a brick one in the block, Art Deco style. Here's a link to the high-quality, larger image of the postcard:

This week, I've been teaching a volunteer and Friend of the Library how to describe another set of postcards given anonymously to the library. These came fully captioned and annotated on their versos, but they still required more description. For the first postcard, I told her what I was seeing, and I brought out a large magnifying glass so that we could read a hanging sign in the card. (It reads "heste House," due to weather damage, but it should read "Chester House," because that's what the subject of the image is).

We talked about the fact that the trees had no leaves, which indicated winter (confirmed by the snow on the dirt road), and the possible time of the day based on the shadows. She understood right away why we were embarking on this project, and did a great first pass. This particular volunteer completed all the transcription work on the Herman Rademacher oral history videos, and enjoys her work in Local History. Because she was so familiar with that project, she was able to transfer what she learned onto her current project.

In my very compact schedules at Chester Library and the Plainfield Historical Society, it's a challenge to spend as much time thinking about projects as I'd like to do. Fortunately, I have a handful of smart and capable volunteers (who sometimes end up with the fun projects I'd like to do myself) doing great work and, through training, taking a some of that thinking off my plate.

Just as an aside, recently I've become President of the New Jersey Library Association's History & Preservation Section. That also puts demands on my time, but I'm happy to do what I can to help move our profession forward. For example, with great help from Jacqueline Haun, the Archivist at the Bunn Library, our next meeting on July 27 will be held with the Princeton Preservation Group at The Lawrenceville School. Importantly, in addition to our meeting, we booked a hands-on photo preservation workshop with Peter Mustardo of The Better Image. I also arranged a catered lunch for those interested in staying for it. It will be a day of filling our minds and bodies with very good things.